My concept of home has, throughout my life, been in constant flux. I have known many homes. The first house my family lived in, with its lemon tree, its fig and banana tree (such immense leaves unfurling!). Our second and final house with its wild olive trees and new lemon tree and tadpole-wriggling pond and aloe stretching ever higher over the years and the many avocado saplings that would not take. I have had a home in res at Stellies and in Lausanne, on exchange, with the Alps as my constant backdrop and trees I’d never seen. I have a home now in France, in a tiny town with flowers I am slowly learning the names of (mimosa, narcissus). I have a home in everyone I’ve ever loved.
But in the past year and a half, particularly with the unmentionable happenings sweeping our little second of geological time, and with my physical distance from South Africa, I have reflected more still on what I call home. As I sit in my little French room looking out the French window at a French sunset, and because sunsets always make me feel nostalgic, I can’t help but get a little pang of Heimweh. My Heimat, my home, for the first long lockdown was my parents’ house, the one with the wild olive trees and the frog concert every evening. Sunset played a highly important role in the structure and atmosphere of those long months. Whatever we did during the day (which never felt like very much to me) was given closure by our sunset ritual. As the frogs woke up and tuned their orchestra, as the inKankanes returned squawkingly home, as the trees bathed one last time in that delicious gold sea of the sky and the yellow flowers slowly released the perfume they’d kept hidden in daylight, we sat and watched. This was the ritual. To sit on the balcony with our gin and tonic (precious in those days), to talk quietly about this and that, to watch and listen and soak up and in. First my mother and I, watching my father water the vegetables with his beer in hand, then all three of us, no, all seven of us, the four dogs at our feet or in our laps or tucked under our jerseys against the early-autumn breeze. Clink clink went the ice in our glasses. Sniffle lick went the tiny dog snouts. Kwe-kwe-kwe went the frogs. Kwaaa-kwaaaa went the homebound hadidas. Rustle rustle whisper whisper went the many leaves of the many green things around us. And the light made a sound too, and the rose-tinged clouds and the darkening sky, only our ears weren’t small enough to hear it. This is perfect peace. This is my small home in the large world, and the memory of it I carry with me wherever I go, and it warms me when I feel a little cold.
The mountains, too, became a home. Just as many others discovered cooking or jogging or Netflix during lockdown, my family discovered hiking. We also discovered jogging and most definitely Netflix, but let’s focus on the hiking. We had been on quite a few hikes in our respective lifetimes, but shit got serious this time around. Along with good family friends of ours we’d go on short little morning hikes or full-day treks up and across all sorts of kloofs and plateaus. Besides the wholesome aspect of talking and laughing for hours along the many meandering paths and stopping for water breaks and snack breaks (what is a hike without dried fruit and sandwiches!), my favourite part was being in nature. Hearing all those birds, all those frenzied insects, the rustling of restios as you pass through an entire forest of them. Smelling those sweet fynbos flowers, the freshness of mountain springs – no water is as sweet as this! this is what they meant when the ancients spoke of ambrosia! – that particular smell of hot earth. And ah, the views. The views. Great sweeping mountain masses rising from the earth, folding here and falling there like a giant, thick cloth dropped by some god late for tea and in a hurry, only there is no rush here. Here there is slowness, millennia of it, here there is the silence, the roaring of stone, of fire. And there the peaks, ragged, ripped, torn like bread to be had with rich wine. And then the valley, funnelled by the legs, the arms, the I-know-not-what of the mountain’s sleeping, ever-waking form. Funnelled like a river which then spreads, gushes suddenly at the mouth into the flat sea of the plain – Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Cape Town in the hazy distance – to be picked up again, raised up again in the bodies of the coastal mountains. It is here, in these moments, in these landscapes, that I am in quiet awe, that I am centred, that I am home. And that one night my dad and I spent wild-camping on Stellenbosch mountain and the sunset was one of the best I had ever seen, then too I felt I was exactly where I was supposed to be. We could spot the tiny square of our house below, but in that moment that rock I was sitting on was my armchair, the golden air (gold everywhere! molten gold seeping into everything!) the perfect blanket and that vast, vast sky with the first constellations that climb so quickly, spinning, spinning – that was my roof. The mountains of Stellenbosch that had cradled me my entire life finally became my home.
Earth Day really should be called Home Day. And everyone should go out into a green space, an un-human space, and surrender to their surroundings. Look, listen, touch, smell, taste everything, everything. And realise that nothing stands between. We have such an ego, us humans, that we have become blind and numbed to everything happening around us, outside of us. We think we are conquerors and kings and first, better, above. We forget. Mary Oliver beautifully writes that “there’s a sickness worse than the risk of death and that’s forgetting what we should never forget”. We have forgotten what it was like to have much more hair. We have forgotten what it was like to be quadrupedal, to have gills, to be nothing but some cell that decided to split, once upon a time in primordial waters. We have forgotten that the rain spider is a distant cousin, the puffadder an uncle twice removed, the pincushion a mother’s aunt’s great-aunt’s mother’s sister. When Baptiste Morizot says “Nous avons tous, nous vivants, un corps épais de temps”, he means we have, each of us living things, a body thick with time, heavy with the lives of ten thousand others that came before us. We carry within us all our ancestral shapes, all the physical and behavioural characteristics that have been passed on and transformed over billions of years. We carry within us our distant cousins, our uncles twice removed, our mother’s aunt’s great-aunt’s mother’s sisters. When I touch the soft fur of a king protea or the cool giggle of a mountain stream or the trembling body of a bird trapped in the house, just before release, I am in fact touching myself. Our molecules are the same. I am in everything, as everything is in me. In forgetting this basic truth, we are killing ourselves.
On this Earth Day I have Heimweh for my South Africa, my mountains, my quiet sunsets. My nostalgia is rooted in the natural beauty of my home. I celebrate it and sing it, knowing it is still there, can still be sung. In a few decades, however, what things will I be nostalgic for that cannot be reached or regained because they no longer exist? The beaches. Perhaps the rockpools and waterfalls of Jonkershoek. My ear might miss the call of certain birds, might long for the humming of bees (like a choir warming up before a performance). I may miss the noise of the world. We think ‘nature’ is silent, but it is anything but. If we were really to listen, what pandemonium! information! threats! seductions! warnings! negotiations! pure delight! Perhaps, in a few decades, we will know real silence and yearn for the racket. Perhaps we’ll fondly, melancholically, remember how green the mountains were, how seldom fires blackened their sides. I do not know yet what I’ll have to miss, what will be forced into my nostalgia, but when I return from France I know I’ll look a bit longer, breathe a bit deeper. So that, just as my parents tell me about what they could buy with a half cent, I’ll be able to tell my child one day (if I choose to selfishly have one) all about my home.
Photos by Maria Stallmann